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Chelsea Singleton

Grant will enable research into link between community violence and nutrition

Does community violence have a nutritional consequence? That’s what one researcher at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign wants to find out, and a new grant will help her achieve that.

Kinesiology and Community Health assistant professor Chelsea Singleton received a K01 grant from the National Institutes of Health for her pilot study entitled, “Community Violence and its Impact on Food Retail, Food Purchasing Behavior, and Dietary Intake among Low-income African Americans.”

The K01 is the NIH’s funding mechanism for new researchers and junior faculty to help them assemble pilot data and hone specific skills aimed at building what they hope is their career research goal, Singleton explained.

For Singleton, it is a chance to expand on her postdoctoral studies of farmer’s markets in Chicago, and also to examine whether there’s a link to community violence and nutrition outcomes.

“There's such a lack of literature and knowledge on this particular area,” she said, explaining why she wrote a proposal seeking funding for this project. “So I can connect it to something like physical activity because we do know that when there's violence in communities, it creates a safety issue. And it makes people not want to do behaviors such as walking, running. So my theory is the same with community violence and nutrition. … If there is a lot of violence in the area, it greatly limits the spatial reach of our food environments. So for an example, if there's a threat of violence in the area, somebody might not want to go to a specific food retailer.”

The grant is timely, too, Singleton said, because research colleagues have recently begun to look into how the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis “>has resulted in stores closing in communities, and how that has affected food purchasing as well as food insecurity.”

Singleton added that the ripple effect includes businesses losing customers, which could force them to shut down, and could make the area less enticing to future business owners.

“But also, it might limit people's shopping behavior,” she said. “They might have to shop outside their community or travel farther. And if we're talking about people who are of lower income, they might not have the resources and means to do that.”

Singleton has a three-pronged approach for the study, which will be conducted in Chicago. Part I is to interview food retail owners, and collect information about customers, and what they sell.

“But we're going to be specifically asking them about their perceptions about community violence and how it has affected their business to date, has it affected their sales, has it affected their security,” she said. “So we're really trying to just develop an understanding about how violence in the area has affected their business, if it has affected their business at all.”

Singleton will also try to evaluate the connection between socioeconomic characteristics, crime rate, and then availability of food retailers, using a geographic information system (GIS).

“With GIS analysis, my team and I will be able to map the crime and map the businesses to see whether or not there is a spatial relationship between the types of outlets that are available and crime.

“But more importantly, I'm really interested in seeing whether or not violence in communities make food retail businesses vulnerable economically. Or do we see less healthy food retailers coming into communities, or exiting communities prematurely because of the violence?”

Lastly, the grant will allow Singleton to examine the connection between community violence and food purchasing behavior. For that aim, she said, “I want to put together a volunteer sample of low income African-Americans, and specifically see where they're shopping, and ask them questions about their experiences with violence, and whether or not it's part of their decision-making for where they shop.”

Singleton said it could mean the difference of having fresh fruits and other more nutritious items because of fear of going to a nearby store.

“When I was doing my postdoc, I was doing a lot of research on farmer's markets as well as these alternative outlets, as well as smaller food stores. And a lot of people were saying I think a lot about where I shop because of the violence in my community. I won't go to this particular area, or this particular store. It's not just what people purchase, but where they choose to shop, how far they travel, thinking about public transportation, or whether or not they have access to a car.”

In her grant proposal, Singleton wrote that her study will provide valuable information to researchers, policymakers, and public health agencies on the role of community violence in creating nutrition-related health inequities at the community and individual levels.

“I feel like this is a really great time to talk about these topics,” she said. “And I'm excited to get going with this project.”

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